BY 2021, rural towns lining the Bruce Highway in central Queensland will look nothing like they do now.
Quiet plains home to fourth generation farmers and thousands of head of livestock will be cleared and transformed into military battlegrounds where tanks roam rather than cattle.
Thousands — estimates suggest as many as 14,000 — foreign troops will drive armoured vehicles, fly helicopters and jet aircraft and fire live rounds. It won’t be suitable for civilians.
It’s a huge change coming courtesy of an expansion to the Shoalwater Bay Military Training site, an already-significant area of countryside more than 100km northwest of Rockhampton.
Singapore’s Army wants to use it for training but they say it’s not big enough. An expansion will make it six times bigger than Singapore alone.
The Australian Government is on board thanks in no small part to the $2.25 billion sweetener promised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, but those whose lives will be turned upside down in the process are losing sleep and worrying about what comes next.
As many as 40 landowners in and around Marlborough received letters in the week of November 28, as well as a map detailing how their lives were about to change.
They were told their homes and farms would either “likely” or “potentially” be compulsorily acquired to make way for the war games.
For many, the news came out of the blue. For Philippa Rea and her family, it could mean walking away 8000 acres, 1100 head of cattle and more than 20 years of memories.
Her and her husband can’t bring themselves to tell the kids yet.
“To be honest, we haven’t really discussed the issue much with our children,” she told news.com.au.
“How do you explain the concept to very small children? How do you explain that they will no longer don their workshirts and go on a water run with dad? How do you explain that they will no longer be able to pop out into the paddock to pat their favourite horse?”
Philippa, her husband Clinton and their children Alexandra, 5, and Benjamin, 3, live on Stanage Bay Road on a property that has been in the Rea family for generations.
They heard rumours before November that “the army was looking to buy property” nearby but their fears were confirmed in print.
The letter from the Department of Defence was coupled with what Philippa calls a “rough mud map”. It read:
In mid-December representatives from the Department of Defence will be in Marlborough to meet with landowners and leaseholders whose properties are within the expansion areas for Shoalwater Bay Training Area as indicated in the image (above).
It was that simple. Her land was in the proposed expansion zone. She’s been losing sleep ever since. So has Danielle McKenzie.
Mrs McKenzie, who owns Marlborough Motors with her husband, found out about the plans when a friend called her in tears.
“She was severely upset,” she said. “I was completely shocked. I didn’t think at that moment about me, I just felt so sick in my tummy for them. Then, three days later, I started to think ‘Oh my God, if this goes ahead then a huge amount of our clients will be gone’.”
The family studied the maps and crunched the numbers. The result was alarming.
“I was gobsmacked. I could not believe it. We went home and went through all the properties. It comes to 70 per cent of our client base,” she told news.com.au.
“We have no idea what to do. We’re backed into a corner. Landowners will be offered compensation and that’s something but local business owners won’t get a thing. (The Defence Department) said it to our face: ‘You will not be entitled to any compensation’.
“They should explain to my three children what’s going to happen to us. How are we going to rebuild our lives? We’re still in debt from purchasing and there’s no way I could rebuild. We go to bed sick to our stomach. How do you live like that?”
Mrs McKenzie says the plan will impact Yeppoon and Rockhampton, too. She organised a meeting on Monday attended by stakeholders including landowners, Department of Defence representatives and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson.
Ms Hanson says it’s a land grab.
“We only have so much prime agricultural land in Australia. Look after it and don’t just hand it over for Defense training,” she told Seven News.
AgForce Queensland’s Grant Maudsley said it was an “abuse of power”.
Livingston Shire Mayor Bill Ludwig said the move was “shortsighted” and should be reconsidered.
“The loss of this productive primary production land will impact on our region for generations to come,” he said.
“It is a shortsighted strategy to trade-off existing wealth generating primary production land with no guarantees whatsoever that those economic losses will be compensated by the establishment of long-term Defence related industry jobs or major supply chain opportunities.”
Landowners have been given a rough timeline. There will be “templating” and a master plan delivered in February this year, followed by confirmation from the ADF about which properties will stay and which will go.
After that, parliamentarians will decide to either approve or reject the acquisition strategy.
Philippa Rea says she’s crossing her fingers for a fair result. She says she supports the troops and the need for training, but only to a point.
“We are not asking the government to unravel the five areas of co-operation between Australia and Singapore that are outlined in the Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” she said.
“We are not asking the government to stop progress in trade and economics in tandem with Defence. We are asking them to consider alternatives to taking our land, our livelihoods, our lives.”